20 years later: CTC reflects on Matthew Shepard’s murder with ‘The Laramie Project’ and a new play by local LGBTQ youth

Max Jablow and the cast of “The Laramie Project” | Courtesy of Commonwealth Theatre Center

This week, the Commonwealth Theatre Center (CTC) opens a new production of the groundbreaking play “The Laramie Project.”

Mitchell Martin, director of the play, also has led a team from CTC in creating curriculum to work with students involved in the Louisville Youth Group, a nonprofit whose mission is “to empower youth with the tools to take ownership of their own lives, (and) create space for youth to heal and develop into the LGBTQIA+ leaders of tomorrow.”

Twenty years ago on Oct. 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die, tied to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyo. He was eventually found and taken to Poudre Valley Hospital. He died six days later on Oct. 12.

The stories sent shock waves throughout America. In New York City, Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project felt those waves and believed they needed to go to Laramie immediately and record and probe what exactly had happened in that small town.

The result was an interview-based documentary-style piece of Epic Theatre titled “The Laramie Project.” It has been recognized as a groundbreaking piece of theater, spawned a sequel and has had near constant regional productions since its premiere in 2000. In 2002, it was adapted into an award-winning HBO miniseries.

‘We were, like, we have to do it.’

In almost every theater company out there, including CTC, each year the folks in charge sit down and decide what plays the company will perform for the new season.

For CTC, it’s a conversation that is often tied to curriculum, and this year it is focusing some of the curriculum on Epic Theatre, a theatrical form based in political and intellectual discourse that frequently eschews suspension of disbelief in order to encourage the audience to think about what they are seeing instead of simply being swept away.

Mitchell Martin

“We were talking about what kind of Epic Theatre we could do … and (realized) next year is 20 years later,” recalled Martin. “And we were, like, we have to do it.”

Martin felt compelled to lobby Associate Artistic Director Hallie Dizdarevic for the chance to direct.

“I went to Hallie and I was, like, ‘Please, please, please, please … This means a lot to me,’ and she could tell. She’s like, ‘OK.’”

In addition to being an actor, director and teacher, Martin is a gay man and had first seen “The Laramie Project” at the age of 12, before he had come out to anyone.

When Dizdarevic agreed to Martin’s role as director, his emotional response was strong — and immediate.

“And I’m like, ‘OK … I’m gonna go cry now.’ I ran out of the room and started weeping. And I realized this has been a dream since I was 12.”

Martin quickly realized he needed to do more than just direct the play.

“I knew I wanted to reach young people who were struggling … who are in need of an outlet,” he said. “I just wanted LGBTQIA+ people to know about this play, to know why it’s important and to talk about it. And to not only talk about this play, but to talk about themselves.”

So he began developing a plan to do just that.

‘When have you felt like you should be proud, but haven’t been?’

Cast of “The Laramie Project” | Courtesy of Commonwealth Theatre Center

While productions at CTC’s Walden Conservatory are a little more likely to grab headlines, the nonprofit does a variety of work outside the confines of its Payne Street campus. Much of that work is aimed at working with underserved youth who don’t always have access to the arts.

In that spirit, Martin reached out to Jason Peno, the executive director of Louisville Youth Group, to talk about the two organizations working together and serving the LGBTQ youth.

With help from other CTC staff, Martin created a new curriculum for the LYG program that resulted from his conversation with Peno. It combined Martin’s own ideas, drew on CTC’s existing methodologies, and took tactics from the Tectonic Theater Project. He was joined by two other facilitators: Omicah House and Sadie Lawrence.

The program that emerged was 12 weeks of meetings with a group of about 20 students.

“We started off with icebreaker games, getting to know you, making eye contact during mirroring exercises,” said Martin.

Ruby Osborne and William Ngong | Courtesy of CTC

“Mirroring” is a common theater game wherein two students face each other, and while one moves, the other attempts to perfectly mirror his actions. Martin believes it’s important to do the mirroring exercise.

“It’s another way to connect,” he added.

Like mirrors, many of the exercises happened with the group broken up into partners, including the parts of the classes focused on telling stories. Martin described the way those exercises begin.

“Make eye contact. I tell you a story about myself based on the prompt we’ve given you,” he said. After giving each student time to tell a story, the group comes back together. “And now you tell my story as if it happened to you.”

These sessions are all being recorded, and the students and CTC facilitators will turn those into a piece of theater, to be read for an audience. To prompt stories, Martin created questions based on four themes: pride, shame and guilt, secrecy and freedom.

While he was moved by all the responses he has heard, when asked to pick something that stood out, he responded immediately.

“One kid just talked about going to the Pride Festival … It was the first time they didn’t feel pressured to be the ‘weird gay kid.’ And on the opposite side of the spectrum, there was this kid who was, like, ‘I don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in pride. I don’t feel proud. I don’t like that people have to ask me what my gender is, ask me what my pronouns are. Why can’t they just tell?’ ”

‘Or did he die because those boys were straight?’

Matthew Shepard | Courtesy of the Matthew Shepard Foundation

Throughout the process, Martin was in contact with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which was created by Shepard’s parents to help fight the bigotry that took their child.

On the first day of rehearsal with the students, Martin shared an article with his cast that his contact at the foundation had shared with him. There was a quote that stood out to Martin.

“The author asked, ‘Did Matthew Shepard die because he was gay, or did he die because those boys were straight?’ ”

Although the term wasn’t being used in 1998, Martin sees Shepard’s attack as having been motivated by toxic masculinity as well as homophobia, both of which Martin remembers all too well from his own childhood and teenage years. But as an adult who has now been out for quite some time, he decided to ask the cast about what they were experiencing.

“Is this still happening? Because I need to know where this is relevant,” said Martin. “Like, did you grow up with ‘Boys don’t cry’? Did you grow up with a masculinist ‘Boy means strong’? Did you grow up with it? It was a resounding, definite ‘Yes, we all did.’ ”

With that question answered, Martin and the cast got to work. They left the politics mostly behind, trusting the Epic script to tell the stories and focusing on the characters they were portraying — the men and women of that small Wyoming town where Shepard was killed 20 years ago.

Throughout the play, in most of its productions across the world, images are projected onto the stage, intended to reflect the intense media scrutiny that surrounded Shepard’s death. In that tradition, CTC is projecting images and slides onto the stage.

There, Martin is making his one directorial concession to the 20 years that have passed since Shepard died and Laramie’s now historical 1998 setting. Despite the elapsed time, he’s using current images and headlines, instead of the traditional headlines about Shepard from 1998.

Cicely Warren in “The Laramie Project” | Courtesy of Commonwealth Theatre Center

Hate crimes are on the rise, and queer youth face danger from assault and despair.

“Knowing who Matthew was, he was an activist. I think he would want us to make some statements about today and where we are now,” said Martin.

He sees addressing the issues facing the LGBTQ community as an obligation, not an option.

“We have to,” said Martin.

“The Laramie Project” runs Oct. 11-20 at the Commonwealth Theatre Center, 1123 Payne St. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors. A staged reading of the new play generated by the Louisville Youth Group will be read by 12 members at 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 20.